I was on an early morning story in downtown Tampa when I saw it.
A trolley rolled by — not one of those historic yellow electric streetcars that run to Ybor City, but a more purposeful rubber-wheeled bus gussied up like a trolley and trundling toward downtown's tall buildings.
And did I just see public transportation downtown that made sense? A way to ferry folks between offices, hotels, events and meetings through the workday at regular intervals you could count on? An option for we workers who often drive miles to lunch because it's too far to walk, or too hot, or too dicey to try to find a parking space downtown?
We don't do transit very well here. It's taking the equivalent of an international summit just to try to get a public shuttle bus from downtown Tampa to the airport. Construction has rendered Interstate 275 into a Busch Gardens thrill ride, except scarier. And yes, we did just score $4.8 million in federal funds toward a high-speed ferry service, which is great, although probably not our most pressing transit need. And buses have long been treated like the transportation of last resort rather than a smart option for a workforce.
When I started thinking about it, I realized I'd seen this trolley now and again and heard mention here and there. Turns out the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority does indeed run the In-Town Trolley every 15 minutes on a logical route that takes in major office buildings, hotels and the convention center, at a most modest fare of 25 cents. What's not to like?
Then, I saw the hours — 6 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. As in, idle when most downtown workers are out and about.
The current city administration is all about building a downtown that's vibrant and visitor- and resident-friendly, and what's friendlier than being able to get where you're going? Notably, downtown Tampa has sprouted many restaurants since the days of the world's saddest McDonald's and the late-night Subway — deli, Spanish, Vietnamese, Jamaican, Thai, New York, organic pizza. In this, downtown's got chops.
"We used to have all-day (trolley) service — kind of ironically — before we had the plethora of restaurants," Karen Kress of the Downtown Tampa Partnership says.
And when I ask a handful of fellow downtowners about their trolley knowledge, nearly everyone thought I was talking about that streetcar to Ybor.
HART spokeswoman Sandra Morrison says hours for the trolleys were cut in 2011 after "poor ridership and budget concerns," and that it would cost about $90,000 to expand those hours. The city pays $200,000 to run the current service yearly.
Hillsborough Commissioner and transit proponent Mark Sharpe sighs when I call. (He does that a lot when I call.) "I was shocked to find out — and I'm on HART's board — that we had one," he says of the in-town trolley service.
Changing how we view buses — and just as important, how we sell them to potential riders — will take a "cultural mind-shift," Sharpe says. He's right, and transportation types will tell you they are working on downtown as we speak.
But give us convenient, logical ways to get around — and make sure we actually know about them — and I say we're ready to ride.